"Watching a blank screen" by ToastyKen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 1982’s The Thing is a masterpiece sci-fi horror

By: Nicolo Grasso

A group of scientists finds themselves stranded in an Antarctic research facility during a blizzard. One of them is infected by a shape-shifting alien, and paranoia slowly sets into every man, unsure of whom to trust. This simple yet effective premise has made John Carpenter’s The Thing such an enduring classic for 40 years.

This sci-fi horror is based on a John W. Campbell novella titled Who Goes There?, which was already adapted less faithfully in 1951’s The Thing from Another World. While originally receiving a rather lukewarm reception, thanks in no part to being released right after a more family-friendly alien story in the form of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, The Thing has gone on to become a true classic of both horror and science fiction.

It is easy to see why. From a purely technical standpoint, the film has aged incredibly gracefully: coming at the height of practical effects before computer-generated images were revolutionized by Jurassic Park, the work put in by 22-year-old Rob Bottin was revolutionary, giving birth to some of the most repulsive and gruesome creatures of all time. Moments like the infamous defibrillator scene (where a man’s chest opens to reveal a set of moving teeth that bite off a person’s arms) or the reveal of the dog monster are embedded in audiences’ minds forever.

But, like all great films, The Thing does not stand on its own exclusively because of cool special effects and gore. The simplicity of Campbell’s story has made it a perfect narrative from which many different interpretations can be extracted. Being a film released in the early ‘80s, a common way of examining it from a historical standpoint is as an AIDS allegory: the titular alien attacks a group of men, moving from host to host with seemingly invisible signs of its presence. The look of the creature, which features tentacles and moments of penetration, play on the fear of men being violated by someone or something else (akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien), and the fear of sexually-transmitted diseases became topical at the start of the ‘80s.

Anti-communist ideals are undeniably present in the script, remnants of the Cold War paranoia found in the novella and in much of 1950s’ sci-fi stories. Said paranoia has easily been the most enduring element that has made the film stand the test of time, as it can apply to almost any situation: fear of pregnancy or more generic illnesses, fear of losing control of one’s body and identity, fear of betrayal by those we trust the most… What adds to the constant feeling of tension that permeates the film from the opening scene is its open ending: debating which one of the two survivors might be infected by the parasite is missing the point, as the lack of finality and unnerving sense of dread are meant to give no respite to the audience as much as to the characters.

There was an attempt in 2011 to reboot The Thing with a prequel that added very little to the universe, overusing digital effects rather than trusting the practical work that Amalgamated Dynamics had been working on. There are talks of a new remake courtesy of Blumhouse Productions and Universal Studios, which, while unnecessary, makes sense given the times we are living: the amount of doubt, butting ideologies, and pure paranoia that the whole world is experiencing with the ongoing pandemic shares a strong resemblance to Carpenter’s film. This classic should be left on its own and forever cherished, as it is a rare example of a remake that improved upon its predecessor, delivering a timeless science-fiction horror that continues to thrill and capture viewers to this day.

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